The reduced genome of a heritable symbiont from an ectoparasitic feather feeding louse
Feather feeding lice are abundant and diverse ectoparasites that complete their entire life cycle on an avian host. The principal or sole source of nutrition for these lice is feathers. Feathers appear to lack four amino acids that the lice would require to complete development and reproduce. Several insect groups have acquired heritable and intracellular bacteria that can synthesize metabolites absent in an insect’s diet, allowing insects to feed exclusively on nutrient-poor resources. Multiple species of feather feeding lice have been shown to harbor heritable and intracellular bacteria. We expected that these bacteria augment the louse’s diet with amino acids and facilitated the evolution of these diverse and specialized parasites. Heritable symbionts of insects often have small genomes that contain a minimal set of genes needed to maintain essential cell functions and synthesize metabolites absent in the host insect’s diet. Therefore, we expected the genome of a bacterial endosymbiont in feather lice would be small, but encode pathways for biosynthesis of amino acids.
We sequenced the genome of a bacterial symbiont from a feather feeding louse (Columbicola wolffhuegeli) that parasitizes the Pied Imperial Pigeon (Ducula bicolor) and used its genome to predict metabolism of amino acids based on the presence or absence of genes. We found that this bacterial symbiont has a small genome, similar to the genomes of heritable symbionts described in other insect groups. However, we failed to identify many of the genes that we expected would support metabolism of amino acids in the symbiont genome. We also evaluated other gene pathways and features of the highly reduced genome of this symbiotic bacterium.
Based on the data collected in this study, it does not appear that this bacterial symbiont can synthesize amino acids needed to complement the diet of a feather feeding louse. Our results raise additional questions about the biology of feather chewing lice and the roles of symbiotic bacteria in evolution of diverse avian parasites.